PORTLAND – G.H. Bass & Co. announced Thursday it will shut down its Maine operations next year in a move that will eliminate nearly 300 jobs and mark the end of Bass’ presence in the state where it was founded 127 years ago.

Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. of New York, which owns G.H. Bass, said it has reached a licensing agreement with Brown Shoe Co. Inc. of St. Louis whereby Brown will design, source and market the Bass brand in wholesale markets. The arrangement will become effective in February.

Phillips-Van Heusen is making the move to focus on its Calvin Klein brand and its wholesale dress shirt and sportswear businesses.

Richard Mitchell, vice president of human resources for Bass, said Bass will shut down its distribution center in Wilton in mid-2004, eliminating about 125 jobs there. The company will close down its South Portland headquarters within nine months, which will eliminate about 165 jobs.

Mitchell said between 15 and 20 employees are being offered jobs with Brown Shoe. Another 70 to 75 employees in Bass’ retail division and support units, such as accounting and information technology, will be offered positions in Phillips-Van Heusen offices in New York City or New Jersey.

He said employees who lose their jobs will be offered severance pay packages and outplacement services to find other jobs.

“The brand has a storied history,” Mitchell said. “The belief is that with the synergy with Brown Shoe, the strength and viability of the Bass brand will best be represented by putting it in an all-footwear company.”

Bass will continue to operate its retail division, Mitchell said. The company runs 225 retail stores across the country and Puerto Rico where it sells shoes, apparel and accessories.

The announcement is another blow in the long heritage of the Maine shoemaking industry and in the storied history of one of Maine’s best-known shoe companies.

Founded by George Henry Bass in 1876, the company has long stood for quality and evoked images of Maine’s rugged wilderness. Charles Lindbergh was wearing Bass shoes from Maine when he flew across the Atlantic, and Hollywood legend James Dean made Bass footwear a fashion statement with his rolled up jeans and white T-shirt.

Bass ceased shoe manufacturing in Maine when closed down its manufacturing plant in Wilton in 1998 and moved manufacturing to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. That move resulted in 350 job cuts.

In a prepared statement, Phillips-Van Heusen said the Bass wholesale footwear business was unable to become more than marginally profitable.

“The license agreement with Brown Shoe gives us the ability to partner with a footwear company that has both the size and expertise to grow the Bass footwear business and enhance its brand image,” chairman and chief executive officer Bruce Klatsky said.

Brown Shoe operates the 900-store Famous Footwear chain and 400 Naturalizer stores. It owns and markets Naturalizer, LifeStride, Buster Brown and Connie shoe brands, as well as Dr. Scholl’s and Carlos by Carlos Santana.

AP-ES-12-18-03 2129EST

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